Rat of Tobruk Noel Branch, pictured far left.
Rat of Tobruk Noel Branch, pictured far left. Contributed

RATS OF TOBRUK: Noel followed in his father's footsteps

BORN into a family of bakers, it was hardly surprising that Noel James Branch followed in their footsteps.

Born in Maryborough on April 8, 1922, Noel was the second child of Charles and Agnes Branch.

He was the family's first son and eventually one of seven children.

Noel grew up in Maryborough with his four sisters, Edna Neilson, Phyliss Shillig, Hazel Schwarzrock, Joan Nowitzke, and two brothers Laurence and Robert.

He started his apprenticeship as a baker and pastry cook aged 15, following his father and grandfather into the industry.

In 1940, as many of Noel's friends joined the forces, he was told by the Maryborough recruiting officer he wouldn't be joining them due to his apprenticeship.

 

Officers in their tent at Tobruk, Libya. 1941.
Officers in their tent at Tobruk, Libya. 1941. Australian War Memorial ROK04041

On May 27, 1940 he relinquished his apprenticeship and joined the Australian Imperial Forces.

But he was faced with another hurdle when joining.

Noel told the the recruiting officer he was 18, only to be told the age requirement was 21.

He rejoined the queue of seven people, fronted up again and told them he was 21.

Again following in the footsteps of his father, who had been a signaller in the First World War, Noel joined the Australian Corp of Signals and trained at Seymore in Victoria.

He departed Australia on the Queen Mary bound for the Middle East in December 1940.

Within four weeks, he was in North Africa and part of the retreat to Tobruk.

 

Operations room of the 9th Australian Division Signals during the siege of Tobruk, Libya. 1941.
Operations room of the 9th Australian Division Signals during the siege of Tobruk, Libya. 1941. Australian War Memorial ROK06041

He went on to spend six months there.

Noel's family were later told how proud he was as a boy to be a member of such a band of men.

At the beginning of the siege, Noel celebrated his 19th birthday as a Rat of Tobruk.

His children would grow up hearing very little about a war Noel said they didn't need to know about, but there were two stories daughter Sue recalls.

"One night as they were getting ready to bunk down for the night they called for men to check the perimeter," she said.

"Dad and three others volunteers went out, one bloke named Darkie Weatherall didn't put his belt on his pants.

"As they were crawling along Darkie's trousers become a problem to keep up so he just crawled out of them and kept going.

"Dad just happened to be the one behind him when crawling home and he said it gave a whole new meaning to the saying 'to crawl up someone's bum'."

Another time, the men needed cable to the other side of the Bay of Tobruk.

"The men were told to go right around to do it, but being young known alls they put it all in a dingy and started rowing like the Devil himself was after them.

"The fighting was going on all around them the whole time but they just kept going and got back later to some very stern discipline."

Noel arrived home in 1942, before going on to serve in the islands and Papua New Guinea until the end of the war.

It was while on home leave in 1945 Noel met Alexine Wilschefski.

They wrote to each other until the end of the war and were engaged in 1946.

They married in St Paul's Church of England in Maryborough in January, 1947.

The couple had four children together, Noel Jr, Lesli, Suzanne and Dennis.

Once married, Noel spent most of his life in the baking industry.

Lex and Noel bought their first bakery at Mt Perry in 1953 and later owned a bakery at Meandarra, Mitchell and Gin Gin.

Noel suffered his first heart attack in 1973 and retired from active work in 1977, when he handed the Gin Gin bakery to sons Noel and Neil.

The couple retired to Moore Park in 1979 and Noel later underwent two open heart surgeries in 1983 and 1987.

He died on April 25, 1996 and is remembered by his family as a loving dad who would do anything for his wife and children, putting them above all else.

Information supplied by the family of Noel Branch and the CQ Rats of Tobruk Association.



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